Gun violence is a public health problem, but we don’t approach it like one. The debate often gets framed as “guns or no guns” when it isn’t that black and white. In this episode we break down how and why to approach gun violence as a public health problem, what the current research has to say, and what we need to move forward.
Federal officials waited months before making all American adults eligible for a COVID-19 booster shot — meaning millions of Americans may not have the strongest possible protection as they head into holiday travel.
Why it matters: Critics say the confusing process undermined what has now become a critical effort to stave off another wave of the pandemic.
- Most vaccinated people, even without a booster, still have very strong protection against serious illness or death. But a third shot drastically increases people’s defenses against even mild infections, which could in turn help reduce the virus’ spread.
- And some vulnerable vaccinated adults are at risk of serious breakthrough cases.
What they’re saying: “We have a consensus. Boosters are very important in maintaining people’s defenses against COVID. We need to get as many people vaccinated and boosted [as possible] as the winter sets in,” David Kessler, the chief science officer of Biden’s COVID response, said in an interview.
Context: Preliminary data released months ago suggested a significant decline in the vaccines’ effectiveness at preventing infection, although they held up well against severe disease.
- Based on that data, the Biden administration had hoped to begin allowing booster shots in September for any American adult who was at least eight months removed from their second dose.
- The CDC and the FDA opted instead to only authorize boosters for seniors, people with high-risk medical conditions and people at high risk of infection, before opening them last week to everyone at least six months out from their initial shots.
In the meantime, red and blue states alike decided to ignore the CDC and open up booster eligibility on their own, and breakthrough infections have become increasingly common.
- Millions of people who weren’t technically eligible for boosters got them anyway, and a large portion of the most vulnerable patients still haven’t gotten one.
- Where it stands: Only 41% of vaccinated Americans 65 and older have received a booster shot, as have 20% of all vaccinated adults, per the CDC.
“Some of us were there several months ago. Some wanted more data. In the end, there’s a convergence of opinions. It’s the way an open scientific public health process should work,” Kessler said.
Between the lines: The U.S. drug approval process — with its insistence on high-quality data and careful expert reviews — is the world’s gold standard precisely because it moves deliberately. Regulators have been trying this whole time to figure out how to adapt that system to a fast-moving pandemic.
Some federal officials, as well as many outside experts, said there wasn’t enough data to make a broad booster recommendation earlier this fall.
- Early on, many public health experts also argued that it was unethical to give Americans a third shot while much of the rest of the world awaited their first shots.
- Israel embraced boosters before the U.S. beginning over the summer, and its emerging data has been key to making the case that boosters are needed and can help bring surges under control. However, experts still don’t know how long the enhanced protection they give will last.
What they’re saying: “Some argued early on that the primary series was good enough and we should conserve doses for the world. What’s emerging is that all people in the world are going to need to be boosted,” a senior administration official said.
- “Everyone has a different threshold for how much data they need in making a decision,” the official added. “What made this different is that there’s a pandemic underway, and many saw we were heading into a winter surge.”
As a long hoped-for sign of the “return to normal”, most children went back to in-person learning this fall. And with the patchwork of COVID safety protocols and masking policies across school districts, classrooms became a learning lab for scientists studying the efficacy of masking and other precautions.
Unsurprisingly, getting a bunch of unvaccinated kids back together caused a surge in pediatric COVID cases. But recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data from 500 counties demonstrate just how effective mask mandates have been at mitigating outbreaks.
The graphic above shows that cases in counties without school mask mandates increased at nearly three times the rate of those with mask mandates. In the five-week period spanning the start of the school year, cases in counties without a mask mandate rose by 62.6 cases per 100K children, while cases in counties with a mask mandate rose by only 23.8 per 100K. COVID outbreaks are incredibly disruptive to learning; according to a recent KFF survey, nearly a quarter of parents report their child has already had to quarantine at home this school year following a possible COVID exposure.
Even once vaccines are approved for children under 12, recent data suggest that a majority of parents will be hesitant to vaccinate their child. Just over half of 12- to 17-year-olds have received at least one dose of the vaccine so far, and only a third of parents of 5- to 11-year-olds plan to vaccinate their child right away, once the shot is approved.
Many want more information, or are worried about side effects—concerns that will best be assuaged by their pediatricians and other trusted sources of unbiased information.
Two pieces of hopeful news on the COVID front this week.
First, pharmaceutical manufacturer Merck announced this morning that molnupiravir, the oral antiviral drug it developed along with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, reduced hospitalizations among newly diagnosed COVID patients by 50 percent. A five-day course of the drug was so successful in Merck’s clinical study that an independent monitoring group recommended halting the study and submitting the pill to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency use authorization. Molnupiravir is activated by metabolism, and upon entering human cells, is converted into RNA-like building blocks, causing mutations in the COVID virus’s RNA genome and interfering with its replication. For that reason, the drug is unlikely to be prescribed during pregnancy, but otherwise the therapy seems to hold great promise in adding to the limited armamentarium available to fight the pandemic. One possible concern: the drug’s price tag. The federal government has agreed to purchase 1.7M courses of the drug at $700 per course, and with most insurance companies having returned to normal cost-sharing for COVID treatments, the drug may be out of reach for some patients. Still, a major clinical development to be celebrated, and more to come as Merck’s drug is vetted by the FDA.
At $20 to $40 per dose, with costs fully absorbed by the federal government, and remarkable effectiveness at preventing severe disease, hospitalizations, and deaths, vaccines remain far and away our best frontline weapon for fighting the COVID pandemic. Promising, then, that the much-debated vaccine mandates have begun to demonstrate success in increasing vaccination rates, even among those who have thus far resisted getting the shot.
Despite concerns about massive staffing shortages among hospitals resulting from the implementation of its mandate, the state of New York found that 92 percent of healthcare workers had been vaccinated by Monday, when the mandate went into effect. That was a 10-percentage-point increase from a week earlier, holding promise that the Biden administration’s planned federal mandate for healthcare workers could have the desired effect.
California’s mandate for healthcare workers went into effect yesterday, and was credited with boosting vaccination rates to 90 percent at many of the state’s health systems. Among private employers considering mandates, the experience of United Airlines may also be instructive: its employee mandate led to the vaccination of more than 99 percent of its workers, resulting in the termination of only 700 of its 67,000 employees. Of course, everyone prefers carrots to sticks, but sweepstakes and bonuses have only gotten so far in encouraging people to get vaccinated—now it appears mandates have a useful role to play as well.
With 56 percent of the population fully vaccinated, the US now ranks 43rd among nations, just ahead of Saudi Arabia and far behind most of Europe. In the next few days we’ll reach the grim milestone of 700,000 COVID deaths in this country—anything that helps stop that number from growing further should be welcome news.
Interest in the antiparasitic drug Ivermectin has increased drastically as of late thanks to the belief that it can help to prevent and/or treat Covid-19. In today’s episode we examine recent data on the efficacy of Ivermectin as an antiviral and discuss the history behind how it gained this reputation.
Howard Stern was reflecting this week on the coronavirus deaths of four conservative talk-radio hosts who had espoused anti-vaccine and anti-mask sentiments when he took aim at those who have refused to get vaccinated.
“I want my freedom to live,” he said Tuesday on his SiriusXM program. “I want to get out of the house. I want to go next door and play chess. I want to go take some pictures.”
The shock jock, who advocated for the coronavirus vaccine to be mandatory, then turned his attention to the hesitancy that has played a significant role in the U.S. spread of the virus, leading to what Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has called a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”He pointed to unvaccinated people who are “clogging” up overwhelmed hospitals, calling them “imbeciles” and “nut jobs” and suggesting that doctors and nurses not treat those who have not taken a coronavirus vaccine.
“I’m really of mind to say, ‘Look, if you didn’t get vaccinated [and] you got covid, you don’t get into a hospital,’ ” he said. “You had the cure and you wouldn’t take it.”
Stern’s comments come after several other celebrities expressed to their large social media audiences their frustration with the ongoing lag in vaccinations when hospitals are being pushed to their limits by the highly transmissible delta variant.
More than 185,000 coronavirus infections were reported Wednesday across the United States, according to data compiled by The Washington Post. Nearly 102,000 people are hospitalized with covid-19; more than 26,000 are in intensive care units. A slight decline in hospitalizations over the past week has inspired cautious optimism among public health leaders.
While there is not a nationwide vaccine mandate, President Biden is expected to sign an executive order Thursday requiring that all federal employees be vaccinated, without an alternative for regular coronavirus testing to opt out of the mandate, The Post reported. The order affecting the estimated 2.1 million federal workers comes as Biden plans to outline a “robust plan to stop the spread of the delta variant and boost covid-19 vaccinations,” the White House said.
Health officials, doctors and nurses nationwide have urged those still hesitant to get vaccinated — and some have gone a step further. Jason Valentine, a physician in Mobile, Ala., informed patients last month that he would not treat anyone who was unvaccinated, saying there were “no conspiracy theories, no excuses” preventing anyone from being vaccinated. Linda Marraccini, a doctor in South Miami, said this month that she would not treat unvaccinated patients in person, noting that her office would “no longer subject our patients and staff to unnecessary risk.”
The summer surge also has led celebrities to use their platform to either call on unvaccinated people to get vaccinated or to denounce them for not doing so. Actor and activist Sean Penn said the vaccine should be mandatory and has called on Hollywood to implement vaccination guidelines on film sets. Actors Benicio Del Toro and Zoe Saldana were part of a vaccine video campaign this year to help debunk misinformation about coronavirus vaccination. When actress Melissa Joan Hart revealed her breakthrough coronavirus case last month, she said she was angry that the nation “got lazy” about getting vaccinated and that masking was not required at her children’s school.
Late-night talk host Jimmy Kimmel suggested Tuesday that hospitals shouldn’t treat unvaccinated patients who prefer to take ivermectin — a medicine long used to kill parasites in animals and humans that has soared in popularity despite being an unproven covid-19 treatment and the subject of warnings by health officials against its use for the coronavirus. After noting that Anthony S. Fauci, the chief medical adviser to Biden, warned that some hospitals might be forced to make “tough choices” on who gets an ICU bed, the late-night host quipped that the situation was not difficult.
“That choice doesn’t seem so tough to me,” Kimmel said. “Vaccinated person having a heart attack? Yes, come right in; we’ll take care of you. Unvaccinated guy who gobbled horse goo? Rest in peace, wheezy.”
Stern has featured front-line workers on his show and has advocated for people to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. In December, the host interviewed Cody Turner, a physician at the Cleveland Clinic, about how the front-line doctor struggled with his mental health while treating infected patients when a vaccine was not widely available.
“We are drowning and we are in hell, and people don’t understand, not only what’s happening to people, you know, but patients across this country,” Turner said.
Stern was a fierce critic of President Donald Trump’s response to the pandemic, saying last year that his former friend was “treasonous” for telling supporters to attend large rallies, despite the risk of infection, in the run-up to the presidential election.
On his eponymous program this week, Stern referred to four conservative talk-radio hosts who bashed the vaccine and eventually died of the virus: Marc Bernier, 65; Phil Valentine, 61; Jimmy DeYoung, 81; and Dick Farrel, 65. In the weeks and months leading up to their deaths last month, all four men had publicly shared their opposition to mainstream public health efforts when coronavirus infections were spiking.
“Four of them were like ranting on the air — they will not get vaccinated,” Stern said Tuesday. “They were on fire … they were all dying and then their dying words were, ‘I wish I had been more into the vaccine. I wish I had taken it.’ ”
After he played a clip of Bernier saying he would not get vaccinated, Stern suggested that the coronavirus vaccine be considered as normal as a measles or mumps vaccine.
“When are we going to stop putting up with the idiots in this country and just say it’s mandatory to get vaccinated?” he asked.